The Lower Shire Valley is situated at the end of the Great Rift Valley and is also the lowest part of Malawi. The Shire River meanders through it on its way to the Zambezi and the sea. The river is the only watercourse that leaves Lake Malawi and wonders across the upper valley before descending through the spectacular rapids and falls, known as the Murchison Cataracts, the Mpatamanga Gorge to the Kapichira Falls. The entire Lower Shire Valley lies below 150 meters and the land to the sides of the wide river is used for cultivation of commercial crops, including sugar cane. In this valley is Elephant Marsh, stretching east from the river, Lengwe National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve and the Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve. All these parks and reserves have for a very long time been neglected but recently they are been rehabilitated and interest in them is starting to grow again.
The Lower Shire Valley is also rich in history and culture; native settlements in the area go back to the arrival of the Bantus in this part of Africa. The Portuguese merchants trumped up and down the valley from Tete to trade with the interior and Livingstone traversed it many time during his explorations of Central Africa. The floor of the valley is scattered with the tombs of many missionaries and early explorers. It was also the main gate way to Nyasaland and the interior till the late 1950. The first travelers to the territory would arrive up the Zambezi and the Shire to the Murchison Falls and then trek up to the growing settlement of Blantyre on the Shire Highlands. In 1905 a railway line was constructed connecting Chikwawa at the foot of the escarpment to Blantyre and later the line was extended to Beira on the Mozambique coast. Port Herald, now Nsanje, Malawi’s southern most town, was the point of entry for people travelling to the country till the advent of jet travel.
Elephant Marsh is part of the flood plain of the Shire River, because the marsh is difficult to define, its area is calculated as been between 400 to 1200 square kilometers. At its northern margins it is best classified as semi-permanent marshland while to the south it becomes a small lake with island while the marsh supports a floating mat of vegetation which grows so thick in places that boats are unable to penetrate it. The name was given to the place by David Livingstone who reported 800 elephants in a single sighting; today the largest animals are crocodiles and hippos. For anybody interested in birdlife, navigating the marsh’s network of channels will be in for a treat; fish eagles, storks, kingfishers, herons and countless other species will be seen even on a short visit. Crocodiles and hippos inhabit the marsh and are generally not a nuisance, often otters may be seen.
Lengwe National Park is one of Malawi’s lesser know but stunningly beautiful national parks. It is a relatively small park of 900 square kilometers. The vegetation is thicket, with some deciduous woodland and denser tree growth along the stream courses. The eastern area is quite flat, in the west the level rises and low hills, outcrops of sandstone, break the skyline. Lengwe is especially arid outside the rainy season; this aids game viewing because it forces animals to use the few pools that are permanent supplies of water. The park has predators like leopard and hyenas and a large number of buffalo. Sightings, as in all National parks, will be much a matter of chance. What will be seen is plenty of antelope, including the beautiful nyala, here in its northern most natural habitat in southern Africa. Also common are kudu, duiker, Livingston’s suni, bushbuck and impala as well as baboons and warthogs. The birdlife of Lengwe is very attractive with over 300 species recorded.
Majete Wildlife Reserve is 691 square kilometers and is currently run by the Africa Parks Foundation organization; they have gone to enormous effort to reintroduce a number of species to the area; including, rhino and elephant. An undulating scenic countryside, it is densely forested with tall deciduous woodland. Mixed acacia, lead wood, stately baobab trees and patches of ilala palms scatter the east, whilst the rugged sloping terrain and isolated hills in the centre and west are dominated by miombo woodland. There are many gullies and deep ravines and the two perennial rivers, the Mkurumadzi and the Shire, are teeming with birdlife, crocodiles and hippos. The deep thickets, grassy glades and diverse vegetation give the visitor to Majete a rugged and isolated feel quite unlike any other game reserve. Its attraction is its scenic setting and the Shire River that here forms the Kapichira Falls and the Murchison Cataracts. Livingstone’s sail on Africa’s inland waters was interrupted in this place by a series of rapids and waterfalls. In the reserve is the tomb of Cecil John Rhode’s brother that died in a fire while camping here.
Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve at 135 square kilometers is Malawi’s smallest reserve. It is of exceptional beauty, where rivers cut through narrow gorges and there is a variety of vegetation from grass to woodlands and even some quite dense forest. Its biggest attraction is the Mwabvi Gorge, where the river plunges through sandstone outcrops close to the Mozambique border. Some 200 birds species have been recorded here, one of which is the double-banded sand grouse, rare in other Malawi parks and reserves.
For your stay in the Lower Shire Valley we would suggest to use Nyala Lodge, a recently renovated small lodge inside Lengwe National Park. It is within easy reach from Blantyre and offers nine comfortable double en-suite chalets. All rooms have mosquito nets and overhead fans. There is a splash pool for the very hot, days a fully stocked bar and restaurant. From the lodge restaurant you can view the many animals that grase nerby. One may not be able to describe the lodge as luxurious when compared to some others in Southern Africa but it is defiantly comfortable and has all the essentials needs to make your stay a very pleasant one.
Nyala Lodge offers guided walking safaris in Lengwe Park as well as day and night drives. It can organize day excursions to places of interest in the Lower Shire like Elephant Marsh, Majete Game Reserve, Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve, Ilovo Sugar Estate, Kapichira Falls and boat excursions on the Shire River to fish and sightsee. It furthermore, offers traditional village evenings at Ndakwera, where guests will be trated to traditional dances and a traditional meal and will be shown the village way of grinding and distilling.
The management of the lodge is also involved in the creation of the Lower Shire Heritage Trust. The Trust’s objective is to preserve and promote the culture of the Lower Shire Valley and the traditional ways of life of the people of the area. At the gate of the park a heritage centre – Tisunge (which in Chichewa means ‘Lets us preserve’) is a small museum, an arts and craft shop, a research and children’s library and other activites. Many ethnographic objects, from traditional and modern culture, have been collected in the villages. These objects together with archaeological findings and the history and environment of the park form part of the exhibit.
Before Livingstone’s arrival the Lower Shire Valley was famous for its weaving using locally grown cotton. In colonial times the raw cotton was sold to the English and shipped to England where cloth was made and hence the art of weaving in Malawi completely disappeared. The cotton is still locally grown and the Trust, with the aid of the National Museum of Malawi in Blantyre, has reintroduced the traditionalweaving, spinning and dying in the village surrounding Lengwe. The people have picked up the trade and this locally made, beautiful, cloth is now sold at the Tisunge shop.
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